The question for most manufacturers today is not when to adopt 3D printing, but how fast they can move to capitalize on its efficiencies. According to a PwC survey of US manufacturers, two out of three companies are already adopting 3D printing in some form. A related PwC study on 3D printing also revealed:
- Almost half of US manufacturers surveyed believe that it is “likely” or “very likely” that 3D printing will be used for low-volume, highly specialized products over the next 3 to 5 years
- 3D printing allows production of parts that are often too difficult and complex to make through traditional manufacturing processes
- New materials and printers will enable the printing of intelligent systems embedded with enhancements such as sensors, transistors and microprocessors
The number of materials available for use in 3D printing—also known as additive printing—has grown significantly from a limited number of plastics to metals, ceramics, powders and even food. By now, we’ve all heard about 3D printing being used for customized prosthetics or small industrial parts. But even large defense contractors are adopting advanced manufacturing for military aircraft because it can make the parts lighter, which yields significant fuel savings, among other benefits.
3D printing offers manufacturers an almost unlimited number of new market opportunities. However, this “rush to market” excitement should also be balanced with responsible approaches. One helpful development is that federal, state and local governments are giving manufacturers the ability to test materials for use in their own products through advanced manufacturing labs around the country. For example, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute brings more than 40 global manufacturing and technology companies together with over 30 university, government and community partners to offer applied research and demonstration projects, as well as training and workforce development.
Until recently, there were no 3D printing manufacturing standards in place. Now there is a collaborative body called The America Makes & ANSI Additive Manufacturing Standardization Collaborative (AMSC), whose objective is to develop industry-wide additive printing standards and specifications. The AMSC includes representatives from private industry, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), material suppliers, government, academia, standards developing organizations (SDOs), certification bodies and other stakeholders.
When it comes to understanding 3D printing liability, manufacturers must deal with a new reality: there is little physical equipment to handle or inventory to store. The 3D manufacturing process is truly virtual because a smart machine sends the order for a part to the printer and it is then shipped immediately upon completion.
With the sophisticated type of software used for 3D printing, a manufacturer now may need to consider risk-transfer techniques more typical of a software manufacturer, such as security and privacy coverage to handle external hackers who steal or alter intellectual property, and errors and omissions (E&O) to handle any software malfunctions or human error that result in problems with the printer function.
Forecasters are predicting that by 2020, 3D printing in manufacturing will grow to be a $17 billion business. Companies that once operated solely in the physical world will experience much of their production and transportation of goods in the digital realm. Staying on top of the disruptive nature of this technology also means managing the potential for disruptive business risks.